Just before Christmas I read Changing Gears: A Pedal-Powered Detour from the Rat Race by Greg Foyster. This is not a book review (though it was a pretty interesting book), but rather a riff on one small phrase that sprung out at me and that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I don’t have the exact quote, but early in the book Greg is talking to people about sustainability and someone points out that resilience and efficiency are at odds with each other. That is, we can choose to do things the efficient way (but they won’t be resilient) or the resilient way (but they won’t be efficient).

As a very small example, let me tell you something that occurred to me the other day while making a zucchini slice. I had to crack six eggs which I’d got from a produce swap. I had in front of me the half-carton of eggs, a large bowl, and a small cup. I cracked each egg into the cup, and then tipped it into the bowl before cracking the next.

This was inefficient. It would have been quicker to crack them straight into the bowl. But what if one of them was rotten? It’s happened before, and I know that it can ruin the whole meal. There’s no way to separate one rotten egg from five fresh ones once they’ve been mixed together in a bowl, and I had no more eggs in the house. I was hungry for my lunch, and didn’t want to have to ride up to the shops to get more eggs if I messed it up.

Resilience often means doing things a slightly slower, messier, or more complicated way. The upside is that you protect yourself against risk and failure, either in the short term (as with my lunch) or the longer term.

I’ve gotten into a couple of twitter discussions lately that touched on resilience vs efficiency on a larger scale. The first was on the subject of line-drying clothes. I’ve grown up doing so, and consider it straightforward and completely normal, which means I’m slightly boggled by posts like this one recommending expensive equipment and talking about people who hang out their clothes once a month “for fun”.

When I started talking about this on Twitter, someone pointed out that machine-drying clothes was “more efficient”. They were mostly talking about the time of the person doing the hanging-out, taking-in, and folding of the laundry, a task that is typically undervalued and for which people (let’s be clear here: mostly women, especially mothers) aren’t usually paid.

So yeah, saving time on laundry by machine-drying is more efficient from the point of view of the individual doing the laundry. It’s also possible to do it in all weathers and at any time of day or night, and to have your clothes ready in less time. Arguably, making chores faster and more convenient shows that we value the time of the people that do them, and gives them greater opportunity to spend their time in other ways they find valuable: earning money in the formal economy, or reading a good book, or whatever floats their boat.

But what’s the cost in resilience? To machine dry our clothes, we need:

  • A dryer, which costs hundreds of dollars up front, breaks down from time to time, and needs replacing relatively often.
  • Electricity, at a cost (one online calculator tells me) of around $50 a year for typical use.
  • Ventilation, to avoid heating up your house, and/or cooling (eg. aircon) to offset the heat generated in warm weather — add the cost of the aircon unit and electricity to run it.
  • Mechanisms to prevent static cling, especially in dry climates. This usually means petro-chemical based fabric softeners, and the production facilities and distribution channels for them.
  • Clothing selected for its machine-dry-ability, which excludes eg. wool (one of the best fabrics around for warmth, breathability, and durability if you treat it right).
  • Frequent replacement of clothing that wears out more quickly when machine-dried.

Machine drying depends on an immense industrial system: manufacturing and repair of equipment, delivery of electricity, fast fashion and industrial textiles, fossil fuels, and more. If any one of those parts breaks down (a power outage, for instance, or your electric dryer literally breaking down and not working) then you can’t dry your clothes. If you depend on a laundromat and you don’t have coins or simply can’t afford the cost, or you can’t leave the house for some reason, you can’t dry your clothes. You have to buy clothes more often, and are more restricted in what you can buy. And in the long run you’re contributing to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, pollution, and god knows what else, none of which are going to be great for you personally.

On the other hand, with an outdoor line or a drying rack that costs about $10 (this is the typical price in Australia, rather than the $159 in the blog post linked above), a few minutes of my time, and a bit of forethought, I can dry my clothes no matter what happens. I don’t rely on electricity, it can’t really break down, it humidifies my house (a good thing in a dry climate, saving further on appliances and electricity), I don’t have to buy fabric softener at the supermarket, I can invest in longer-lasting clothing, and I save money that I can put toward my long-term wellbeing or anything else that I value. When it comes to time, I fit my laundry into breaks in my work day, which is good for my physical and mental health (not to mention nice to spend a few minutes out in the fresh air when the weather’s clement) making me more able to deal with whatever else life throws at me.

All this at a cost of about 15 minutes a week.

a load of laundry hanging on a rotary clothesline

I spent 5 minutes hanging out today’s load while thinking about the first draft of this post.

Of course, I personally think resilience is better than efficiency. Other people disagree with me, and have their own reasons for doing so. Sometimes their reasons are very good ones: for instance, someone with health problems or who works long hours outside the home or who lives in a vastly different climate may have different priorities from mine.

I recognise that I won’t be able to convert everyone to my way of thinking. What I most want to do is to question the idea that “efficiency” is an unalloyed good, or the only yardstick against which we can measure. I’d like to avoid constantly talking at cross-purposes with people who assume that “it’s more efficient” is an automatic argument-winner. Efficiency happens in a context, and has consequences.

For what it’s worth, the other Twitter discussion that touched on efficiency-vs-resilience was about industrial agriculture and GMOs. It was pointed out that “big ag” is a very efficient way of producing a lot of food. I’ll leave the effects of the industrial food system, with respect to resilience, as an exercise for the reader.

Related reading, especially for those in or interested in the tech industry: Anil Dash, To Less Efficient Startups.